The Unthanks - Here's The Tender Coming
There have been a few changes in The Unthanks camp since we last encountered them; out (to finish her PhD) goes pianist Stef Conner and in from the shadows comes longstanding cohort Adrian McNally on piano and drums with Chris Price also augmenting the sound with his bass guitar. It’s created a warmer, fuller sound for sure but, as ever, an Unthanks record is all about the incredible vocal talents of Rachel and Becky Unthank. The strikingly different tones of the sisters complement each other perfectly and Here’s The Tender Coming sees the formal acknowledgement of this partnership as they transform from Rachel Unthank and the Winterset to the easier to swallow Unthanks. Some things should never change though and fans will be pleased to note that the clog dancing remains a weapon in the girls’ arsenal of percussion.
The aforementioned tinkering has, in truth, made little difference to the overall package, and this should hardly come as a surprise when one considers from where this band have come. The sisters are the culmination and public face of a family with generations rooted in the traditions of Northumbrian folk music, hence any move to contemporary arrangement is tasteful and gradual. It is telling that their greatest departure from traditional folk music comes via the contemporary McNally composition ‘Lucky Gilchrist’ which finds the band adopting a minimalist, insistent melody which is reminiscent of the elegiac work of Michael Nyman. One always returns to the voices however, and a key attraction of The Unthanks is their adherence to natural dialect and, thankfully, their Northumbrian roots are kept to the fore here, although a step back from the outer reaches of impenetrability dictates that there’s no longer a requirement for any translation in the liner notes.
The wonder of the band is that two sisters could cut such strikingly different ‘personalities’ on record. Rachel is a consummate storyteller, strident and direct her vocals demand rapt attention to every word, while sister Becky ghosts in and out of the album with a softer, bluesier tone like a breeze over a reedbed. Put the two together, as on the cheeky music hall routine of ‘Where’ve Yer Bin Dick?’ and you’ve got perfection. Unless you’ve seen the band live the work cheeky is probably not one you’d associate with The Unthanks and, certainly, this release is a much warmer and happier place to be than that of Bairns. Not that the protagonists are allowed to relax, subject to child labour, death and suicide as the album draws them briefly into our view.
Selecting highlights from such a complete and perfectly paced album is challenging but particular praise must be reserved for Becky’s tender treatment of the tragic tale of ‘Annachie Gordon’ and Rachel’s in your face recitation of ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’, which is based upon the remarkable and real testament of a seventeen year old girl to the 1842 Royal Commission on Child Employment. The Unthanks take these ancient and forgotten tales and breath new life into them so that they seem as fresh and alive now in the twenty first century as they ever did. If you don’t think folk music has anything to say about your life then this is the album that’ll prove you wrong.